The alleged rape of a 16-year-old Muslim girl by Thai soldiers in Southern Thailand is threatening to push relations between Bangkok and the Islamic south to their lowest ebb since the troubles flared in early 2004.
The incident in Pattani was captured on video by one of the soldiers and has been passed around Thailand’s newsrooms and military offices where some have made the galling and insulting comment that perhaps the girl didn’t resist enough.
One columnist, on International Women’s Day, went so far as to suggest the girl was unfortunately caught-up in the perennial issue of cross culture romance between Buddhist soldiers stationed in the south and local Muslim women, adding the alleged rape had made public an ongoing but unacknowledged issue.
While the age of consent in Thailand is 15, the penal code was amended in 1997 to outlaw anyone under the age of 18 from consenting to sex with those over this age. Thus, even if the girl had consented, the soldiers would still be guilty as they were over the legal age and she wasn’t. Furthermore, they were also in breach of the army’s rules that bar soldiers from mixing with local women.
But suggestions that this was anything but rape have only added insult to injury in the violence-plagued south. The local Muslim population is angry and as one senior Sheik told the local press, “It is disgusting that in our country, soldiers think they can ruin lives and use violence against our women.”
“If the government doesn’t take hard action we will rise up,” he said, adding locals would “not stand by and allow our honor to be put in the mud.”
Police had promised action would be immediate. But locals accused the authorities of dragging their feet on the issue, saying they were reluctant to prosecute those they see as their own.
The two soldiers Winai Klangwichai and Somyos Jantharaphut – both privates – have surrendered to police and will apparently face charges of gang rape and forcibly separating the girl from her parents.
Winai has been accused of rape, while Somyos allegedly made the video and posted it on the Internet.
A separatist rebellion in Pattani and its neighboring provinces of Narathiwat and Yala has claimed at least 4,300 lives over the last eight years, with the Thai military stationing 60,000 troops in the area.
Authorities have been hard-pressed to rein in the bloody conflict in the three Muslim Southern provinces, annexed by Thailand in 1902, while improving relations with the rest of the country, which is Buddhist.
Earlier this month, four soldiers were killed when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb. In January, another four soldiers died in Narathiwat after 40 gunmen overran their camp in a raid that demonstrated the rebels were far more organized than the military had previously thought.
This latest incident has ensured tensions in the south will continue to simmer.